The politics of identity glosses over genuine needs in many societies.
These identity fault lines are exploited, and emotionally they resonate with people’s grievances. Yet they are not the bread-and-butter issues that politicians should be held to account.
Social justice, equality, freedom, inflation, the cost of living and the need to provide equal opportunities are glossed over, as emotional issues of blame and hurt galvanise the electorate and consume their votes
Whether they are issues relating to colour, ethnicity, religion or nationality, they are equally felt by all in different ways, and democracy then becomes a victim of majoritarianism.
Identity issues provide the numbers, and the people vote based on their emotions and prejudices that politicians have fanned. Their people’s victim mentality blinds them to more existential basic realities.
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Elected into power are politicians who have little capacity to unite warlords who have been in Parliament for decades, and so they make a scant difference by their presence.
And now we have a former prime minister who promoted Vision 2020 questioning the multi-ethnic character of Malaysian society.
However, many of them have gained an economic status beyond their capacities, enriching themselves in the name of promoting race and religion. Amazing how we have been duped over the years!
The more they divide, the more divisive it becomes. Pakistan could be a case in point. A nation founded on a religious principle born out of division continues its divisive spell on its present population. Intra-Islamic divisions prevail, and sometimes tribal divisions further complicate issues on the ground. The government, the army and the politics have not helped to meet the needs of the people, despite Pakistan being an Islamic state.
Division is not inclusive, and it perpetuates more divisions. Consider how race has played out in Sri Lanka, a beautiful and prosperous island nation. The issue between the Sinhala and Tamil population and the protracted civil way consumed national resources and bled the population.
What happened to the victorious forces? When the cause was over, much bitterness ensued, but the politicians in power sought wealth for themselves. They forgot the interest of ordinary Sri Lankans, and today the nation is reeling from the after-effects of ethnic violence and economic mismanagement. The suffering is felt by many ordinary Sri Lankans.
Take South Africa, a nation born with the vision that Nelson Mandela held through the African National Congress. The sheer corruption and colour politics have taken the focus away from the needs of the ordinary people in South Africa. Even the present president is reeling from a cover-up scandal that has not yet been fully resolved.
Former President Jacob Zuma was charged with multiple counts of corruption while two brothers from the wealthy Gupta family (the equivalent of Jho Low in Malaysia) have fled the country, their current whereabouts unknown.
Like Sri Lanka, South Africa faces serious economic issues, and the ANC has many challenges before the next election.
In India, we have the BJP and while its leaders have done some positive things, one cannot overlook how they manipulate the ‘Hindu’ card. Many educated Indians have fallen for this ruse of fear tactics based on myths. Anti-Muslim sentiments are fanned to secure votes under the Hindutva banner. Here again, divisive politics and majoritarianism undercut the quality of Indian democracy.
In Malaysia, we have played the race card for too long. It is an easy route to electoral victory, but the quality of leadership it produces has been found wanting. The nation has developed globally notorious kleptocrats, and corruption is endemic.
Division divides, and today the Malay community is splintered – the result of playing race and religion as issues to win votes rather than focusing on the wellbeing of all the people.
The ‘United Malay National Organisation’ (Umno) is no more united, neither is Bersatu (United), another Malay political entity. Great names, but hollow in their achievements. We bluff ourselves that Barisan Nasional still matters, with the MIC and the MCA opting out of the state elections. Their end is near.
We can never build a cohesive society based on identity issues. Diversity is a reality in today’s globalised world. The issues that have to be immediately tackled are the basic challenges confronting people: health, education, employment, a living wage. Those in power have to ensure these basic needs are met.
We witness even within Malaysia the difference in the standards of economic development, which vary from state to state. Logistics, infrastructure, ports, transport and roads are all critical to development, and these should be the focus.
But our politicians spend much of their time playing the cards of race and religion. As self-proclaimed ‘champions’ of race and religious issues, they enrich themselves and corrupt the nation.
The endemic nature of corruption is a reality that cannot be glossed over. While there is so much overt religiosity, we see little evidence of character and leadership quality that can respond to national needs.
Many of our politicians play on divisive issues. They remain politically bankrupt. They do not have the capacity to formulate progressive solutions to national challenges. Their understanding of Islam is not something that looks ahead and inspires justice.
At least, under the present “unity government”, we hear an inclusive tone from the top. While politicians still play to the gallery, it is heartening to hear voices of inclusiveness.
Pakatan Harapan is a multi-ethnic coalition that emphasises justice, democracy and fairness. The future will be one of coalition politics made up of different combinations of ultra-parties and middle-of-the-road parties. This will force political parties to work together.
Institutional reforms lie waiting on the agenda, and these should ultimately erode the ethnic and religious stranglehold on the electorate. Otherwise, we will remain a fragmented society.
Our goal is to build a cohesive nation that respects diversity and upholds the most noble values found in all religions, to inspire unity and confidence.
We need politicians who can unite people, transcend differences and set a goal that ensures society pulls together in one direction. Meeting the needs of all ensures the security and wellbeing of the nation. We can never build a humane society without considerations of humanity.
Today, we are a polarised society despite cries of the Rukun Negara (National Principles), Vision 2020, Keluarga Malaysia (Malaysian Family) and One Malaysia. We hope that Malaysia Madani (Civil Malaysia) will not meet the same fate for, if it does, we will give up the opportunity now to make a difference.
We need a new affirmative action policy that focuses on unity in all our endeavours. This should be reflected in the civil service, in the defence forces, in education and in government-linked companies.
Such a policy will communicate to everyone in Malaysia that he or she matters, and that responsibility is given to all.
A consultative committee can address this agenda as we look ahead.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
12 July 2023